GAHANNA, Ohio (AP) - John and Jamie Petree couldn't believe their luck. The home they bought in a leafy suburban neighborhood was near family and quality schools. Its huge backyard promised years of afternoon fun for their 2-year-old daughter and about-to-be-born son.
Petree built a deck and installed a gas barbecue. The couple painted each room a different color - bright pink and green in the girl's room, orange and blue in their son's. They rewired the electrical system and installed a new hot water tank. They spent about $25,000 and made plans for new carpeting, new flooring and more.
"We thought, 'We're a young couple with a starter home. We'll get in and fix things up,"' said Mrs. Petree, now 34. "He's handy, I like to decorate."
Instead of finishing the remodeling, the couple spent thousands more on a security system: panic buttons, seven smoke detectors, outdoor cameras connected to the living room television, fire extinguishers on every floor and doors that chirped when opened.
They accuse the previous owner, who had lost the house in a bank foreclosure, of trying to scare them away. Andrew Zukowski, at the Petrees' insistence, eventually was charged with menacing by stalking.
Neighbors and the couple say he went from door to door, handing out fliers and urging people to sign a petition to have "his" home returned.
"After reading, send to your friends," he wrote on one flier.
The Petrees say Zukowski also took photos of visitors and at one point blocked the driveway with his pickup truck, refusing to allow a friend to leave.
"It never ended," said neighbor Ken Weimer. "You'd think he's gone, he's finally given up and then a month or two later he'd be back. And he'd just stop and stare at the house.
"Weird. It was just weird."
Zukowski, 62, says he drove by the home only once after the foreclosure and never threatened the Petrees or handed out fliers or petitions.
"I don't know what he is thinking, but he is a policeman," Zukowski said of the accusations made by Petree, a Franklin County deputy sheriff. "I lost my freedom, my integrity, my dignity by this irresponsible person."
Charges against Zukowski eventually were dropped, and he was ruled mentally incompetent.
Eight years later, the Petrees have moved out.
For Zukowski, a native of Poland and proud holder of a master's degree in electrical engineering, it had came to this helpless moment, inside a government building among auctioneers, sheriff's deputies and eyeing investors.
After years of squabbling with the home builder, the county tax auditor and the mortgage company, after writing his own court petitions and pleading in person to judges and government officials, and after being fired from his job and not paying his mortgage, he sat bewildered and he watched and listened.
"They started the auction: $100,000 ... 105 ... 110 ... 120. I stand up and I say, 'I am Andrew Zukowski. What are you doing here? This house has not been foreclosed because I have a pending appeal."'
He had bought the house new for $101,000. Unhappy with the way it was built, Zukowski demanded that the county reassess its value for tax purposes.
After an almost decade-long fight the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals ruled that he and his wife, Teresa, were not exempt from Franklin County property taxes, board records show.
With little savings and no income, they couldn't keep up with their $532 monthly mortgage payments.
The house eventually sold at auction for $125,000, in a case that preceded the nationwide mortgage crisis.
Eight years later, Zukowski sits at a kitchen table in a small condominium in nearby Whitehall, another suburb of Columbus. He's still without work. A portrait of Pope John Paul II, the only pope born in Poland, hangs nearby.
Zukowski says he knows not to go past the house. But he still has hope that someday he'll again walk through the front door.
"I lost my house but maybe God will take different option and maybe somebody will evaluate this situation and change their mind about my good standing, my good reputation because I am not a violator," he said.
"I don't want any house which is not mine. I want to live quietly and peacefully."
Gahanna police had told Petree to look out for the former owner.
According to police records, Zukowski was arrested at the house on charges of criminal trespassing and felonious assault a few days after the January 2000 eviction. He was accused of swinging a pipe at the investor who bought the house. The charges later were dropped, Zukowski said.
That fall, as Petree unloaded groceries from his car, he noticed a truck slowly going by.
"I thought, 'You know what, that's a red and white pickup truck. I wonder if he's hanging around.' So I started walking toward the truck, and it took off," said Petree, 41.
After that, Zukowski cruised past the home more frequently, taking pictures and writing down the license plate numbers of visitors, the Petrees say. He often parked his truck on the opposite block where he had a clear line of sight through fenceless backyards to the back of the home.
"I would see headlights, real slow, right across the back there," said Petree, who recognized the truck. "And he'd sit there. He'd sit there for a half hour."
The Gahanna prosecutor filed four charges of menacing by stalking, and the Petrees filed for a civil protection order. Charges were dropped when a judge found Zukowski mentally incompetent to stand trial.
"Mr. Zukowski does have a persecutory mental disorder, delusional disorder," Dr. John Randall, a forensic psychiatrist, said in a 2001 hearing before the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals in Columbus. "Mr. Zukowski has repeatedly acted on delusions and beliefs in a way that have resulted in the fear and intimidation of others, particularly the current residents of the house."
In May 2003 the Zukowskis were at the Petrees' front door. He said they just wanted to see who was in the house and thought it might be empty.
"I was thinking that this house will be ours," he said. "I don't know. Maybe somebody wants to give back this house because they made a mistake."
Mrs. Petree pushed her panic button, setting off the home alarm, and called 911.
"I grabbed as many children as I could at one time and ran up my flight of stairs with them, my legs collapsing underneath me every couple of steps from pure anxiety and fear," she later wrote to a municipal court judge.
She told her daughter to keep the bedroom door locked until she returned and said it was safe. She hurried downstairs, grabbed a butcher knife and waited by her front window.
A dozen police cars blocked off both ends of the street.
Zukowski was charged with menacing by stalking, violating a protection order and resisting arrest. The charges were dismissed, after three years, when the appeals court found that he hadn't been given a proper mental evaluation.
A Franklin County probate judge's refusal last year to order him either committed to a mental hospital or closely monitored - meaning Zukowski was no longer considered mentally incompetent - finally persuaded the Petrees to give up.
They say they have lost more than $100,000, including lost income and a lower home value.
"We're not letting our house go because we can't pay," Petree said. "We're letting our house go because it's unsafe."
They left in May, saying only that they were moving to a nearby rental home.
A day before they closed the front door for the last time, dishes were stacked in boxes in the kitchen and a child's karate trophy lay on the floor of one of the brightly painted upstairs rooms.